Lutheran pastor, theologian, and author Martin Marty wrote a moving tribute to the God beyond human knowing and understanding as he struggled to fathom the pain and loneliness he felt after his wife’s death. A Cry of Absence [Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1983 / 2009] is a little book that says much for us who struggle along faith’s journey. It also provides some clarity to a rather peculiar comment Jesus makes in both last Sunday’s and this Sunday’s gospel readings [John 9:3b & John 11:4]. In last Sunday’s account of the “man born blind” Jesus refused to accept the prattle that both the blind man and his parents were being punished for some earlier indiscretion or sin. This coming week, the moving story of the death of Lazarus and his sisters’ profound sadness was not simply a tragic dead-end in death before Jesus could manage to get back and “…save the day.” Last week we heard Jesus reply to his disciples, “He was born blind so that God’s glory might be revealed in him.” Sunday’s reading echoes this: “This illness does not lead to [Lazarus’] death; rather it is for God’s glory so that the Son of God might be glorified in it.” What in heaven’s name is Jesus rambling on about?
Marty’s A Cry of Absence explores the necessity of perseverance when reading and reflecting on Scripture. First, it is not something we can do on our own, for the unfolding of the Word’s meaning for God’s faithful is the work of the faith community throughout time and varied experiences. Second, it is to be accompanied by much prayer, usually not answered by perky little bottom line spiritual telegrams from God. Third, the most troublesome issues such as life-long blindness and other serious handicaps or confronting death may well leave us at our wits’ end. Near the conclusion of his study on these things in A Cry of Absence, clarity in understanding might well not come until “the one hundred and first reading” of the passages in question. I think I tripped across that hundred and first reading this past week regarding these two passages I’ve heard for decades during Lent but overlooked. Even so, I’m not sure that I’ve reached clarity yet, but I can glimpse a bit of meaning about Jesus brief comments about handicaps, illness, and even death which reveal God’s glory.
Marty notes that the biblical texts do their disclosing of meaning best when they are able to upset the reader’s view of how the world works [p. 31]. If scripture really is studied to enlighten, bring us deeper understanding as well as challenge and strengthen faith, then scripture can’t simply serve to comfort us when troubled or confirm what we already suspect about the ways of God. The gospels’ message is not a shallow “don’t worry – be happy!” Topics such as life-long suffering, injustices, and ultimately, unexplained or unexpected death can spin us into guessing games about God, even about God’s existence. While we’re happy to bask in the warmth of John 3:16-17 or Psalm 23, it is eye-opening to learn that the psalms, that collection of poems which explore the whole gamut of human experience, grief, and joy, are comprised primarily of uneasy reflections on the limits of human understanding and questions about God’s presence and power in the midst of our suffering.
We know the “right” answer is to “trust in God” or “hope in the Lord.” However, such counsel is never just open-ended, general directions for the befuddled faithful. The person of belief hopes for, hopes in, and hopes that – never just hopes [p. 49]. Belief, hope, faith, and trust are all predicated on the abiding relationship of humankind and the living God, the “I and thou” of Jewish spiritual writer Martin Buber. So that we are absolutely clear about the way we relate, it is our mortality and limitations which define us over against the living God. We began Lent by hearing the sobering phrase, “You are dust, and to dust you must return.” With last Sunday’s and this coming weeks’ Gospel passages, we are learning to wrestle with those limits. It is Jesus’ puzzling comments about God’s glory – at first they seem rather heartless in the face of suffering – which can guide us into understanding.
Because of our fear of death and anxiety over our limitations we might prefer skipping all the nasty bits of scripture and go straight for words of comfort. Scripture, however, does not avoid our frailty but acknowledges it. John 3, Psalm 23, and other comforting passages are there to remind us that we do not need to think we have an uncaring God who ignores our profound suffering while demanding praise. Rather, God is aware of the limits of the creation holy love first fashioned. We were not sent out to struggle on our own, come hell or high water, but rather have God’s promise of persistence, loving regard, and willingness to go to the mat “for us and for our salvation.” God’s love, God’s power to save, redeem, recover, and restore, and promise to gather us into the heavenly dwelling of John 14 are the very things we learn to hope for, in, and that… It is Jesus who embodies God’s glorious revelation that the Messiah has been sent to be for us and with us in our times of doubt and anxiety. It is Jesus who leads us out of despair to be what God has fashioned us to be.
What we learn insofar as we can fathom it is that God’s glory is revealed when creation’s brokenness and sin are bound up, healed, and God’s children are set back on paths of righteousness and freedom. God’s glory is revealed when we turn outward in love to others who don’t yet know of the love of God which has the capacity to shine through us for them. God’s glory is revealed when the anxious know themselves with companions for this journey and the dying find themselves supported and prepared for their journey into God’s eternal embrace. God’s glory is revealed when holy justice, love, and mercy become ever more clearly our own way of living as we discard the bitter trappings of hate, prejudice, suspicion, rumor-mongering all which isolate us one from another rather than joining us clearly together as God’s elect. As Psalm 133 says: How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! …For there the Lord ordained his blessing, life forevermore.